Down at the practice the usual hootenanny is in progress. The waiting room is full. There are queues from those nationalities who do queuing and great seething mauls among those who don’t. It’s hard to tell if this is an international airport waiting lounge or a doctor’s surgery. Only the lack of plush carpeting and stores selling luxury goods gives it away. There are people here who are not registered, don’t know how to get registered or who do not understand the concept of registration and imagine swaying about in front of the reception counter will suffice. Many have language issues and get by with hand signals. Some shout. Others have brought along younger family members better at english than they are to try to help.
In a line in front of the glass window are three aged, baggily oversized pensioners, huddled in coats and scarves and wanting urgently to get in there to present their back pains, swollen feet and chest aches. The receptionist points to a flat TV screen on a side wall and yells something along the lines of “it’s over there, say you are here on the screen” to which she gets the uniform response of “doan work” and the shaking of pensioner heads. I check it out. Press. Enter your date of birth. As if by magic the system knows who you are. “Welcome Peter Finch. Your appointment is with Dr Williams at 10.45, You will be seen at 10.46.” It’s 10.40, 6 mins to wait. I go stand at the far side among a gaggle of screaming children and mothers who are bent on covering the entire floor surface with toys, prams, wet wipes, blankets and other child clinic attending paraphernalia. I am seen at 11.22.
But I am seen.
Inside it’s slick. There are machines that measure my pulse, and blood pressure. Screens that show my entire medical history including MRI scans, X Rays and attendances at hospital clinics. The room is bright lit. Diagnosis is swift and thorough. Smoking is forbidden. A sign tells me this. It is forbidden outside in the waiting area too. Cardiff and the Vale Health have a policy against. They train staff on how to use appropriate body language when approaching recalcitrant smokers. They don’t actually impose fines or take the lit fags off you. Instead they offer you give it up leaflets and tell you where you can attend the nearest quit smoking clinic.
At UHW Heath Hospital right next to the large sign which announces that this is a smoke free zone, just where the smokers in bathrobes and angel gowns usually cluster, they have now positioned a tabard-wearing smoking warden. The one I saw last week was reading a newspaper. Just round the corner from him was an old woman in a wheel chair going full at it with a king size Lambert and Butler
When I was young and the family doctor held his surgery in a cramped room half way along Albany Road next to where the Fish Bar currently stands everyone smoked. In winter you’d enter the icy room heated with a single bar electric fire and lit with a 60 watt bulb to find lines of the aged huddled in their greatcoats all smoking furiously. There’d be copies of the Daily Sketch and last week’s Sunday Pictorial lying about among the fag butts. The air would be dense enough to hold in your gloved hands.
When you got there, facing the actual doctor, smoking was not allowed. Drinking, however, appeared to be. The doctor kept a bottle on his bookshelf badly hidden behind and edition of Grey’s Anatomy. My mother said she was disgusted. He always smells of drink, she’d complain. But still we kept going. The cure for whatever was wrong with me at the time was always the same. Either a tonic, a large NHS bottle of fishy-tasting cure all, one large spoonful to be taken daily, or an ear syringing. This was carried out with warm(ish) water and a steel bowl held near the bottom of your ear. You went back out in the winter cold for 30 seconds a new person after which the side of your face froze.
More effective, it turned out, than today’s cures. Today I get words of concern and antibiotics. Out in the street the rain is coming down like burst water tanks. Passing cars are like speedboats. I sail home. Despite the privations, lack of computer records and the tobacco I’m sure the past was easier. But then people of my age always say that.